What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Viscious by V.E. Schwab

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When I was a kid my mom worked for a public library for a brief time.  It was a gorgeous four story, brick building with white letters that adorned the top floor proclaiming, “LIBRARY!”, exclamation point and all.

If you were about five years
old and you walked inside it and turned left, you experienced a wonderland of children’s fiction.  There were large plastic picture books, young adult “chapter” books, Archie comics and even some old movies on VHS tapes.  They even had computers (which were quite rare for 1990) where you could play reading games or look up books.  To top it all off the very back of the place had a large amphitheater style reading room where they hosted special readings of popular books.

I am just young enough to remember spending hours in this section and thinking, “Why could there possible be three more floors to this place?  What other books could possibly be important enough to include that wouldn’t be here?

In school I learned the other books had a name:  “Non fiction” which I quickly understood was a synonym for “boring.”  They didn’t have pictures or funny stories.  The covers were bland and the titles used big words that nobody understood.  Rumor had it that the inside were nothing but large lists of mindless data about inane topics.

Long story short, I now read about one book a week and those books are almost always from the “non fiction” floors of the public library.  This is not because I have become boring.  It is quite the opposite.  I learned the truth all adults do.  Non fiction, or what I call “real life”, is way more entertaining than the stuff of fantasy novels.

Just the other day I read a “non fiction” TIME article about how Mormons insist you only marry Mormons but their young adults are 60% female which leaves a large percentage of them single and childless, which is unfortunate given their faith’s predominance of family values.  Let me summarize the article a different way, “A religion that preaches you have to get married and have children doesn’t have enough men around for the women to marry.”  You can’t make this up.

I also recently completed a more tragic but true tale about a struggling church who decided to talk more about Jesus and saw their attendance decline dramatically.  A woman who left their church told them, “I am glad you are talking more about Jesus but I will come back when you start talking about marriage and parenting again.”

It is not that I am deriding fiction.  I have several friends, including my wife, who still read it in excess.  Furthermore, I am mindful of all those studies out there (mentioned in non fiction books) that claim people who read fiction all the time are just as intelligent as those who read non fiction all the time.

Yet, even so, the extent to which fiction succeeds lies in how it best mirrors non fiction.  Take for example Delores Umbridge in the Harry Potter tales.  Voldemort was fine and all but I have never met a Voldemort and kind of don’t think people like him exist.  Delores Umbridge is another story.  She went to my church growing up and I hated everything about her.  She was there to keep me from having fun.  Of course, she wasn’t evil.  It turns out she had an extremely low self esteem from a childhood of abuse and neglect and she was now compensating for it by barking out orders and trying to exert control over the only people that would respect her, the children.  The reality that J.K. Rowling wrote her so well means that Delores Umbridge probably went to J.K. Rowling’s church too.

Click to buy.

All that aside, this last week I read the first pop fiction book I have read in quite some time.  A friend recommended it, using multiple exclamation marks and I wanted an easy read and an engaging story, one that I might be able to use in a sermon some day.  The book was V.E. Schwab’s “Vicious” a short and choppy tale about scientists trying to become super heroes.

It is the stuff of summer movies and prime time dramas and as is now common in the stuff of both Marvel and D.C. there can be no black and white super heroes, only several shades of gray.  So it is with “Vicious.”  The good guy quickly becomes the bad guy and the bad guy struggles to find anything virtuous in himself.  In fact, neither is good nor bad, merely yin and yang, two contrasting forces circling around each other and occasionally butting heads and trading bullet and knife wounds.

Still, “Vicious” works because I have met the characters.  They , too, went to my church.  There is the self righteous, religious zealot who thinks he is entirely in the right while he persecutes the less honorable or deserving.  Then there is the tragic villain whose misdemeanors are quite understandable, coming as they do from an unstable personality caused by decades of pain.

Along the way they are joined by two sisters who have also picked up some super powers.  The younger lives in the older’s shadow, wanting to be like her until she realizes how sinister her older sister is.  The older struggles with serious identity questions that are somewhat typical of all college aged adults.

I knew about halfway through the book that we weren’t headed towards a happy ending and, without giving too much away, I was right.  As is typical with the stuff of super heroes, they circle around each other in ever decreasing velocity until they all crash in the climax and none of them walk away unscathed.

That is the stuff of non fiction as well.  Our abilities and personalities circle around each other until we finally crash.  It happens in marriage, in family, in friendships and workplaces and, yes, even in churches.  What remains is the ending of “Vicious” which leaves the readers with a ghost of guilt whose premonitions insist we try to make it right, dealing with our wounds and hurts while we try to keep from hurting each other again.

And that ghost too, went to my local church as I was growing up.  He probably inhabits yours today, as he does your house and your business.

For that reason alone, “Vicious” belongs in both the fiction and non fiction parts of our libraries.

See you all later.  I have Brennan Manning’s autobiography to read.

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Beyond the Talking Points: Why I am Ignoring “50 Shades of Gray”

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Before I get going, that title up there is a complete misnomer.  I totally misspelled “gray” and I did it on purpose to show you how clueless I am about the movie (or is it book?).  I also am not really ignoring “50 Shades of Grey” because if I were, I would not be writing this blog.

Still, I have not read the book and do not plan to see the movie.  I have, however, read the Wikipedia synopsis.

On Wikipedia the description of the plot sounded like your average run-of-the-mill soap opera or harlequin novel, both things we don’t need more of.  More than that, I was rather dismayed that sensual violence was now mainstream.

Still, the plot synopsis mentioned that the couple broke up in the end because they were incompatible.  At the time I thought that line would be a good conversation starter on true intimacy and compatibility.  After all, even by the plot’s own admission signed contracts of submission and dominance seem to run counter to intimacy.  But without having read the book, that conversation is one I won’t have.

Still, I wish there was some way to honestly begin conversations about the increasingly violent and erotic fiction that now lines our bookshelves and fills our televisions.  Heck, last night I was watching Gotham, a prime time, network TV show based off of Batman.  A side plot of the episode involved two mobsters kidnapping a judge and having a scantily clad prostitute beat him with a whip.  That scene would have been the stuff of late night HBO just 10 years ago.  Now there it is, on Fox at 8.

Perhaps somebody should start an honest conversation about that.

But here is the thing:  Evangelical Christians cannot have that conversation.

And here is why:  We have wasted our conversation capitol on things that don’t matter.

Over the last 30 years Evangelical Christians have led the country in mean and nasty attacks about insignificant cultural wars.  We have picked fights on everything from gun laws, to Harry Potter to Presidential Elections to mainstream media to trying to prove Barack Obama is a secret muslim who wasn’t born in America.

All of these ridiculous debates have exhausted whatever respect we had.

So when a novel comes out about a man beating a woman senseless and that novel goes mainstream and becomes a movie and we start to say, “Hey, maybe as a society we shouldn’t go here” we are laughed at and dismissed as another bunch of crazy religious fanatics who still think Barack Obama is the antichrist.

With that said, this post is not meant to be a lament.  Although I am in mourning over the respect we have squandered, I would like to wipe away the tears and see the “50 Shades” phenomenon as an opportunity to reclaim some ground.

There is an opportunity here to have a real dialogue about true sexual intimacy.  That dialog would have to proceed from respect, seek understanding and clarify our support for sexual wholeness.  It would not be easy, especially for evangelicals who often get emotional and angry while we let our good sense catch up.

Still it is possible to begin that conversation and here is how I think it might work:

1)  I would actually read the book.  I would not do so because I want too.  Let me be clear, there are some TV shows, movies and books that have erotic or violent content that I want to watch and read.  And I avoid them for my own spiritual health.  This is not one of those books.  I have zero desire to read erotic romance.  However, if I wanted to speak truth into this “phenomenon” I would have to take the hit and actually read the book.  Until I did that, my opinion would be easily dismissed and I would look like an idiot.

2)  I would acknowledge there is something very real drawing mostly women to the novel.  And I would not readily dismiss that something as “sinful” like many are doing.

3)  I would begin with the end of the book where the couple break up, blaming “incompatibility.”  That would be a wonderful launching point to discussions about intimacy.  After all intimacy seems to be underlying much of the force driving all of this.

4)  I would admit I do not have the answers to true intimacy.  I have been married 6 and a half years (which feels like forever) and just this month found out my wife likes 100 Grand candy bars (or was it Take 5’s?).  There are times when we are of one mind and spirit (and flesh) and times when I look at my wife wondering, “Why did I marry her” and “The Good Lord only knows why she married me?”  There are times when I want to race home just to be in the same room as her other times when I wonder if I could get away with sleeping at the church from here on out.  I do not have the answers to intimacy and I would be very honest about my own rough road in sexuality and marriage.

5) I would be very apologetic and humble about the harmful views my church has espoused about intimacy.  Let’s face it, we have said and believed some really stupid things.  Let’s also admit that we currently say and believe some really stupid things.  In 2015 there are still Christians arguing you only have one shot at intimacy and it is your honeymoon night.  Before and after that, you are doomed.  I am really sorry those morons exist.

6) The goal of the conversation would be truth, not judgment or even doctrinal/ethical clarity.  I really believe “50 Shades of Grey” probably has something to teach us about intimacy, even if it just shows us something to avoid at all costs (which it certainly does).  I also think its popularity has something to teach us about each other.  If I were to engage this cultural expression it would be with the hopes of helping people find out what that was.

But as that title above states, I am ignoring this particular debate so this is all hypothetical.

Maybe one day they will make a “Sword of Shannara” movie.  Then I will be all game.  I loved those books as a kid!

**After I posted this I realized that this book was actually the first in a trilogy and that the couple do end up married in the end.**